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AFA2 Book Review by Jonathan Head

Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia

Michael Vatikiotis

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Every foreign correspondent, once they have spent a few years in a region, will be tempted to write a book about their experiences. This is always risky. Journalists may allow themselves to think they compose the first drafts of history, but the nature of their work usually gives them only a relatively superficial acquaintance with the issues they cover. The result may come across as too glib, too personal, too quickly overrun by events, more memoir than illuminating analysis.

Michael Vatikiotis calls on a lifetime of familiarity with South-East Asia to ask an impressive range of questions about how the region developed the political characteristics it has today and where it is heading. He has had the advantage of a more varied career than most foreign correspondents, which has moved from reporting to editing and, for more than a decade now, to conflict mediation. His book is far more than a journalist’s memoir, although it cannot avoid some of the pitfalls of the genre.

The author was fortunate to arrive in South-East Asia long enough ago to have met some of the first generation of postcolonial nationalists, idealists and intellectuals with uplifting visions of what their countries could become. The contrast he paints between their dreams and the messy reality today is sobering.

Drawing on his experience as a private diplomat working for a Swiss-based mediation organisation, Vatikiotis examines the region’s intractable conflicts – those that have held the border areas of so many countries in their grip for much of their postcolonial histories, and those, as in today’s Thailand, that have flared up between rival political groups. These conflicts, he shows, have had a corrosive effect on the political culture but have been perpetuated by the shortsighted self-interest of entrenched elites.

The impressive economic progress in the region has, Vatikiotis argues, created spectacular levels of inequality of wealth and opportunity, which governments exploit to constrict the circle of power. Even the demands for change following the rapid adoption of social media have, he says, in one of many striking metaphors in the book, “fallen like spent bullets on the tough armour” of South-East Asia’s overcentralised states. The author dwells on the many atrocities committed by state actors, for which there has rarely been redress. His experience in Indonesia often takes him back to the mass killings that accompanied the rise to power of General Suharto after 1965, which still cannot be discussed openly in the country. “Impunity afflicts the region like a chronic disease, one that leaves the host outwardly healthy but which nonetheless inhibits many critical bodily functions,” he writes.

The gloomy prognosis seems apt for a book published at a time when the apparent democratic advances of the 1990s are being reversed in many countries or, in the case of Myanmar, accompanied by state-sponsored communal violence, and where the authoritarian model of China appears to be carrying more sway than the fading beacon of American democracy. Even in Indonesia, arguably the region’s healthiest democracy, the author believes that the population, faced with a choice between divisive and corrupt politicians or formidable military leaders, “are not averse to a strong hand on the tiller – so long as it is cloaked in the trappings of democracy and not run by a thief.”

Why, though, have democratic habits failed to take root in South-East Asia? Vatikiotis posits various reasons. He refers to the selfishness of elites, but it is hard to argue that Asian elites are any more innately selfish than their European, American or Australasian counterparts. He discusses the yearning for security in countries that have experienced debilitating instability; the instilled culture of patronage; and the weakness of historical analysis in societies that prefer “to interpret the past through comforting or heroic myth and legend, rather than by recording actual events,” but none is explored sufficiently to provide any persuasive conclusion.

The absence of an independent and competent judiciary in almost all South-East Asian countries is touched on, but such an absence arguably poses the greatest obstacle to a more defiant democratic culture. Who can challenge holders of power if even the courts are in their pockets, as they so often are here? These days, those in authority resort to repressive laws, such as Malaysia’s Sedition Act and Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, to silence dissent and intimidate the media (rather than outright thuggery and torture, as in the past). By contrast, in the United States we see President Trump’s efforts to impose controversial measures being repeatedly and successfully challenged in the courts.

Likewise, South-East Asia’s absence of an impartial civil service, with a sense of public duty as the prevailing ethic, deserves investigation. The riddle that anti-corruption campaigners in Asia confront is how to break the cycle of patronage and build genuinely independent institutions whose leaders cannot afford to be corrupted, where the shame and fear of legal retribution for bribery far outweighs any financial rewards. Singapore has done it, through the ruthless discipline of a determined state, and through generous salaries, which sap the incentive for corruption. But Singapore, a small city-state, is no model for the rest of South-East Asia.

Where Vatikiotis’s analysis is strongest is, unsurprisingly, in the areas where he has most experience. The chapter on the growth of religious intolerance is superb. It chronicles the increasing appeal of piety among Indonesian student activists and the new urban middle class, the cynical exploitation of Islamic sensibilities by Malaysian political parties, and the rise of extremist jihadism, stirred by outside influences, as so many of the region’s political movements have been.

His discussion of the lasting influence of colonial policies is likewise rewarding, although again demands further investigation. To what degree is the colonial practice of bringing in foreign workforces to Myanmar and Malaysia responsible for the racial tensions we see today? A large degree, surely, but were these explosive tensions inevitable? You will need to look elsewhere for more detailed answers.

Vatikiotis reveals his influences through his references to other thinkers, such as the British colonial official and anthropologist John Furnivall, who first coined the term “plural society” – although he meant unintegrated multi-ethnic communities rather than the more positive gloss the term has today. Or the Malaysian scholar Syed Hussein Alatas, who believed that colonial stereotypes of “the incompetent native” were adopted by the elites who ruled after independence. The text contains some lovely descriptive phrases, such as “the broad, seemingly unending tangle of family ties that provides the essential matting of Southeast Asian societies,” which underscore the author’s intimate familiarity with the region. There are also omissions – Vietnam, where presumably he has not spent much time, is barely mentioned.

On finishing Blood and Silk, I was left feeling it contained several potential books, with the author’s years as a mediator, for example, opening a possible avenue to a more thorough work on border conflicts, or perhaps a detailed examination of the slow death of religious co-existence. For the newcomer to this extraordinary region, some persistence is required to follow the author’s meandering recollections, spanning nearly forty years. For the old hand, and I count myself as one, there is much to learn from this book, opening many fresh paths of investigation.

This is at heart a compassionate but pessimistic reflection on the state of South-East Asia today, a stark rejoinder to the sunnier assessments of this being “Asia’s century.”

Jonathan Head